Mutual vs. Unilateral Submission
Views on submission exist on a continuum, but generally speaking, egalitarians support mutual submission in marriage, and church leadership based on giftedness rather than gender; while complementarians support the unilateral submission of wives, and predominately male church leadership. Both hold the Bible in high regard – the difference comes in interpretation.
One argument for unilateral submission is based on the fact that Adam was created first. Grudem writes that women can’t lead men because “God gave Adam a leadership role when He created him first and Eve second” (2006), and that “God gave men, in general, a disposition that is better suited to teaching and governing in the church…and God gave women, in general, a disposition that inclines more toward a relational, nurturing emphasis” (2009).
Do the creation accounts support this view? The short answer is, not really. Here are five questions that clarify this for me. (There are two creation accounts recorded in Genesis and it may be helpful to review them. They can be viewed here and here.)
Question 1 – Did God create Adam or “a’dam” first?
The Hebrew word “a’dam” which is translated as “man” in Genesis 2 is the same word translated as “mankind” in Genesis 1. God formed “the human” would be a more accurate rendition. Some scholars assume that this human was created male from the start, but the word “a’dam” is not gender-specific. It’s possible that gender differentiation didn’t come about until the woman was created. In other words, perhaps this first human had no gender distinctiveness, but embodied both male and female potential. The division into male and female would not have come about until Eve was created. The fact that the gendered terms for man and woman (ish and ishah) aren’t used until Eve appears on the scene supports this possibility.
Question 2 – Where’s the command about submission?
If God wanted to establish male hierarchy and female submission, why isn’t this recorded in the creation story? In Genesis 1:26 and 28 God tells both Adam and Eve to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”. So something like a direct command to Adam to “rule over the woman” would be expected here if this was an important part of God’s divine plan. But there is no such command in either creation account.
Question 3 – Where’s the logic in a “creation order” argument for submission?
It’s hard to see the logic of male hierarchy based on the order of creation. If the fact that Adam was created before Eve means that he has authority over her, then it would also have to be true that animals have authority over people – after all, they did come first. This is obviously illogical. If anything, the movement in Genesis 2 is not from superior to inferior, but from incompleteness to completeness. If you apply this reverse order, Eve can be seen as the culmination of creation (another “creation order” argument that egalitarians do not believe in). If being born-first was an indicator of God-given authority, we would expect to see that pattern carried forward in the Old Testament. But time and time again the latter born is chosen by God for leadership; for example, consider Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and David. Arguments based on birth order are problematic.
Question 4 – Does “helper suitable” imply submission?
In Genesis 2:18 God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” The word translated as “helper” is “ezer”, which comes from Hebrew root words meaning strength and power. The word translated as “suitable” is “kenegdo”, which means facing, corresponding, or equal to. In English “helper” suggests an assistant or subordinate, but the Hebrew doesn’t carry that connotation. In fact, the term is used more than 20 times in the Old Testament to describe a superior helper; usually God. So a better translation is: “I will make him a “strength corresponding to” him, or “a rescue that looks him in the face”.
Question 5 – Should we live under the curse, or under grace?
No evidence for unilateral female submission is found in Genesis 1-2, but what happens in Genesis 3 does have relevance. Adam and Eve disobey God, and in verses 14-19 God announces the consequences of their disobedience, including these words to the woman: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Complementarians interpret this new imbalance in the relationship as God’s divine plan for gender relationships. Egalitarians see this as a consequence of sin and not a pattern to aspire to. Egalitarians also point to the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection freed us from the results of sin. So should we live under the curse or under the grace ushered in by Christ?
When I consider these questions, I just don’t see how the creation accounts can be interpreted to support the unilateral submission of women. There are certainly gender distinctions between men and women (equal doesn’t mean “the same”), but those distinctions are strengths to be used in partnership as men and women share the work of governing and of nurturing.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring” is this dialog between Arwen, the elven princess, and the warrior leader Aragorn, where they discuss the best way to rescue the hobbit, Frodo, who is dying from a poisoned knife wound:
ARWEN: He’s fading. He’s not going to last. We must get him to my father…
ARAGORN: Stay with the hobbits. I’ll send horses for you.
ARWEN: I’m the faster rider. I’ll take him.
ARAGORN: The road is too dangerous.
ARWEN: I do not fear them.
ARAGORN: (relinquishing to her) Arwen, ride hard. Don’t look back.
What a great picture of mutual submission. Aragorn submits to Arwen’s wisdom and together they meet the urgent need of their friend on the basis of giftedness, not gender.
Settling for anything less is to live under the curse, and to deny that Christ’s death on the cross had the power to restore all of God’s creation to its original beauty.
This post was written as a contribution to the synchroblog series “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes.”
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